Rewriting the Canon

TW: this article discusses racism

Written by Imogen James

“Hi, welcome to English Literature, today we are going to read ‘A Self Identity Journey of a Young Boy who Hates Women and Black People’ by a Dead White Man From Two Centuries Ago. And then we will read it again. And again.”

– English Literature Professor of Esteemed British University

I studied English Literature because I loved books – their intricacies, people, stories and composition. I undertook my four-year degree with excitement, a fresh perspective, and anticipation for all of the wonderful novels I was going to read. Four years later, and I’ve read Frankenstein 3 times, Death of an Author four, and Huckleberry Finn and Robinson Crusoe once (which is already too many times). Each semester the class would end with one novel that wasn’t a white dead person, usually it would be a Black woman, maybe a member of the LGBT community, or an immigrant – they would really try and tick all the ‘inclusive’ boxes in one go. The problem lies within the outdated trope of the ‘classics’ – stories that were exciting and complex and conveyed racism, so common in those days that nobody batted an eyelid. But in the 21st century, is it time we leave these ‘classics’ behind? 

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one such classic, following a boy on a wild adventure. It is a tale of perseverance, wonder, adventure, and racism. Some argue against this – the fact that the author included Jim, the slave, as a main character and gave him some intelligence is enough to reassure Twain’s enthusiasts that their favourite book might not be horribly racist. Yet, the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and the circulation of inclusive ideas called into question a lot of these racist symbols we idolise on a daily basis – still so ingrained in our education systems. How can those that argue the book was forward thinking ignore the ‘N word’ that populates nearly every line? The jokes on Jim’s behalf? Huckleberry’s white hero complex? The praise for slave catchers? 

Robinson Crusoe is another key example of such outdated books. People regarded this novel highly for its ruggedness, its life lessons, Crusoe’s braveness – Friday and his story were ignored. The man had his tongue literally cut out – could have Twain been any clearer in his disregard for Black lives? Crusoe adopted the relationship of master and slave naturally, with the same disregard typical of the time. 

Charles Dickens, a school and university favourite, represented Jews as evil and disgusting in the much-loved Oliver Twist, through the character of Fagin. Mitchell made all of the slaves in her classic Gone With the Wind happy as could be! Yeah, right. Don’t even get me started on Heart of Darkness… (read three times in University).

The worst part of remembering these books is that they are pushed on us from school to adulthood. As children, teachers use them to capture our fascination, as adults in university they’re used as points of analysis. But at what point are we told of the accompanying racism, stereotyping and sexism? At what point is the silver lining removed? Or are we just expected to do it ourselves? 

It is not enough to read these novels knowing they are racist whilst holding them in such high esteem. How can a novel be so incredible, yet damaging to so many people? It is time we seek alternatives. What purpose does it serve to learn about what was acceptable in the 18th century, when we are so further past that? The books should not be excused because ‘people were just like that back then’ because we are no longer like that – there’s no need to promote such disregard and ridicule for minorities. We do not need the messages these novels provide; they can be found elsewhere.

There is no shortage of books from authors that are not dead white men. You will find just as much depth in any Toni Morrison’s novel as you will in The Great Gatsby. This is not to say there are no redeemable classics. The Color Purple, The Bell Jar, 1984, are texts still so relevant and necessary to one’s understanding of the world around us. No novel is without its problems, but instead of idolizing novels that are outdated and irrelevant, we should concentrate on those that transcend time, that will positively impact us and our reading today.

What is the purpose of giving a voice to what is an already densely saturated area of criticism, i.e. novels that are openly racist, sexist and offensive? The injustice and misrepresentation carried on by the publishing industry is a phenomenon that continued for centuries. When your favourite old white men were publishing, nobody would publish a Black author. If they did manage to get a text published, nobody would know about it. If you want survival, challenge, discovery, read Frederick Douglass, a true slave narrative without the unrealistic whitewashing we still see in modern novels. If you want adolescence and adventure read Little Women. The alternatives are already out there – they have just been ignored. No longer should we perpetuate and contribute to the racist structure of the world, carried forward by the education system. It is time that, together, we rewrite the canon.

Books Mentioned:

ALCOTT, L. M. (2004). Little women. New York, Signet Classic.

BARTHES, R. (1967). ‘Death of an Author’. Aspen, no. 5–6.

CONRAD, J., & GOONETILLEKE, D. C. R. A. (1999). Heart of darkness. Peterborough, Ont, Broadview.

DEFOE, D., & DAVIS, E. R. (2010). Robinson Crusoe. Peterborough, Ont, Broadview Press.

FITZGERALD, F. S. (1995). The great Gatsby. New York, Scribner Paperback Fiction.

MITCHEL, M. (1936). Gone with the Wind. New York. The Macmillan Company.

ORWELL, G., PIMLOTT, B., & DAVISON, P. H. (1989). Nineteen eighty-four. London, Penguin Books in association with Secker & Warburg.

PLATH, S., MCCULLOUGH, F., & AMES, L. (2006). The bell jar: a novel. New York, HarperPerennial.

SHELLEY, M. W., & BUTLER, M. (1994). Frankenstein, or, The modern Prometheus: the 1818 text. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

TWAIN, M. (1996). Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York, Random House.

WALKER, A. (1992). The color purple. London, Women’s Press.


Featured image courtesy of Pexels. Image license found here and here. No changes have been made to this image.

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